Old Sydney Town.
This is another guest article by one of our regular contributors, Blackswan. It deals with change, which in itself is inevitable and not always a bad thing. Sometimes though, when the Puritan instinct of the nanny state take control, you end up with bizarre situations like prohibition, which created organised crime, AKA the Mafia, in America.
From the darkened doorway I watch the drizzling rain veil the streetlights, passing cars kicking up spray, scurrying pedestrians seeking shelter. I pull the brim of my hat low, turn up the collar on my raincoat and step out onto the rain-slicked pavement, my boots tapping a staccato rhythm as I hurry on my way.
I’m looking for a ‘fix’.
Being an addict is not an easy life, but there’s a determined clench to my jaw as I head to a favourite haunt where I’m sure to find what I’m looking for. The old pub is in darkness, the windows boarded up and padlocks secure the old oak doors. What the … ?
I’ve already tramped the streets of Kings Cross, that old precinct of bars, restaurants, brothels and nightclubs but the place was almost deserted in these small hours of the morning where once the sidewalks would throng with happy party-goers. What has happened to the Sydney of my youth? The neon lights are in darkness, store-fronts are shuttered and the bawling of touts for the girlie strip shows has been silenced.
I’d arrived in town three days earlier and, on a nostalgic journey down memory lane, I’d boarded a ferry to make the journey down Sydney Harbour, past the iconic Opera House and on to Manly beach. I sat on the low stone wall overlooking those golden sands and my jaw dropped at the spectacle before me. No, it wasn’t the rolling waves of the blue Pacific foaming onto the sands that got my attention; it was the bevy of young bare-breasted women reclining on their beach towels – dozens of them.
Back in the day, there were a couple of isolated harbour beaches tucked away from public view that ‘alternative’ nature lovers frequented, and I well remembered a few of us getting together in a buddy’s speedboat to patrol those beaches offshore, having a great time ogling the nude female sun worshippers while we shouted insults at what we called the “dirty old men” – usually pot-bellied old blokes, deeply tanned but who had put white zinc cream on their family jewels leaving white smears on their inner thighs as they frolicked about chasing frisbees. Silly old buggers. It had always been a good day out on the water perving at sights like that.
Now I was sitting on the seafront at Manly while young women walked about topless among the family groups on the beach and nobody seemed to give them a second glance. I could remember when beach inspectors used to escort young women from the sands if their bikinis were considered to be too brief.
I lit up a cigarette thinking how much life had changed in those intervening decades. A tap on my shoulder and I turned to see a uniformed council inspector glowering at me in disapproval.
“Put that cigarette out!”
“If you throw it on the ground I’ll give you a $200 fine for littering. If you don’t extinguish the cigarette I’ll fine you $110 for smoking it. Make up your mind which it’s to be.”
I shrugged, stubbed out the smoke and returned the butt to the pack, putting it in my pocket. The council man ambled off, a smug smirk on his reddened face.
“You’ll find a lot of that sort of thing going about these days in Old Sydney Town.” The voice belonged to an old bloke sitting near me on the sea wall.
“No smoking in any public places or you can face heavy fines – not in public parks or gardens, within thirty metres of children’s playgrounds, not at football games or shopping centres or even in council car parks. No lighting up within 3 metres of the doorways of public buildings or within 5 metres of outdoor dining venues or even in pub beer gardens and certainly not on any of the main beaches. Not on railway stations, taxi stands or bus stops. I simply couldn’t be bothered with it any more and gave smoking up a few years ago – it wasn’t worth being hounded by bastards like him” with a nod at the retreating back of the council uniform.
“One thing though – if you get caught again – those people haven’t got the legal authority to demand your name and ID so tell ’em your name is Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse and there’s not a thing the idjits can do about it except call the police” he chuckled.
“Thanks, I appreciate the heads-up.”
And now here I was in a near-deserted city at 2 o’clock in the morning looking for a fix. Spotting a bar that was open I headed in the door. A security guard barred my way.
“Sorry, can’t let you in.”
“Why not? I thought you were open.”
“We are, but I can’t let you in because it’s after 1.30am.”
“But I can see people inside.”
“Yes, and they have till 3 am to finish their drinks and leave the premises so we can close. The Law says we must.”
“Really? Well, the rain is getting heavier out here – any chance of a cup of coffee? Nothing else is open.”
He eyed me up and down, decided I was a harmless looking character who wasn’t looking for trouble, and nodded me through the door. He called to the barman – “One cup of coffee please Jack.” And to me he said “Enjoy” as he headed back to his post on the doorstep.
Jack smiled as he handed me a steaming long black with a quizzical eyebrow cocked at the bottle of Jamesons sitting on the bar. I nodded gratefully and he obliged, glancing at the CCTV camera in the ceiling behind me.
“Jeez Jack, what’s happened to this city? I’ve been away for years, and I won’t be hurrying back any time soon.”
Jack flashed me a rueful smile. “It’s the Lockout Laws. Over 40 bars, pubs and restaurants have closed down in the Cross since they came in. Somebody told me that with so much of it shuttered and boarded up, the place is looking more like Detroit every day. Property developers are licking their lips in anticipation of making this part of the city high-density residential.”
“Lockout Laws? Lock out who? Paying customers?”
“That’s about it. We had a couple of nasty incidents a while back when young fellas minding their own business were felled after being king-hit with a single punch from drugged-out drunk thugs. The lads died from brain injuries and politicians over-reacted … as they usually do.”
As Jack wiped down the bar, he continued, nodding at the other subdued patrons murmuring in the background.
“See what they’re drinking their beers from? Unbreakable plastic. Either that or fully tempered glassware and we simply can’t afford that, so after 10pm, plastic it is. Just as well you didn’t want to buy a bottle of wine because we couldn’t sell you one after 10pm and neither can anyone else in the state of New South Wales. You might want to use it as a weapon. Or smash a glass and slice someone up with it.”
He must have noticed my look of disbelief. “And I can’t supply you with a glass jug of beer after 10pm either. If you were in here with a bunch of mates, ‘shouting’ a round for the group has been banned too. A max of two drinks per person now. No siree, Kings Cross has had the heart kicked out of it.
Mind you, if you wanted to kick on and watch the sun come up you can always go to the Star City Casino. That has a 24/7 license and none of these laws apply there.”
Jack looked like a nice young bloke so I took a chance, and told him I was actually looking for a fix for my ‘habit’. I didn’t get to finish explaining what I wanted before Jack snapped at me that there was a “Safe Injecting Room” around the corner and plenty of dealers hanging around there could supply me what I wanted … heroin, ice … it was a druggie’s smorgasbord.
I explained he had misunderstood me … I was looking for some rolling tobacco, trying to avoid the outrageous taxes which pushed the prices ever higher every six months. Did he know of any ‘off-license’ baccy sales?
He smiled. “Ironic isn’t it? People committing a criminal offence are well catered for around the corner and police ordered to keep away, but a nicotine addict is constantly hounded and either give it up or are forced into penury to pay for a legal product.”
As I sipped my well-laced coffee I nodded my agreement, ironic indeed.
I never heard of anyone stopped by a traffic cop and given a ticket for ‘driving under the influence of nicotine’ though you can get a heavy fine for smoking in a vehicle when children under 16 are present. Has anyone pleaded nicotine addiction as a mitigating factor in a case of grievous bodily harm or murder? Though I must admit, when the craving is at its worst I could well do somebody some grievous harm if they took my last smoke.
How free we were as young people in this city.
Providing we did nobody any harm we could come and go as we pleased, smoke and drink where we chose and, if we broke the law or made a nuisance of ourselves we were held accountable … and paid our dues if we did the wrong thing.
Watching ‘old’ movies is a revelation these days. We’ve forgotten when smoking was on all public transport, on almost every desk in every office building, even in movie theatres as I remember watching the ghostly coils of cigarette smoke in the bright shaft of light from the projection room.
We were free but we were also accountable.
Today the Nanny State has removed the ‘personal responsibility’ factor from individuals. Comply with the diktats of politically correct bureaucrats or suffer the consequences. It’s true that members of the public object to smoking around them or their families and support the current bans BUT … it was always thus and if someone in your company objected politely, you obliged by butting out. In fact it was the norm to ask permission of your friends and companions before you lit up. It was a matter of common courtesy, not a matter for the Law and Regulation.
Jack scribbled the name of a local tobacco shop on a scrap of paper and handed it to me with the change from my coffee. I told him to keep the coin and thanked him for the information – I’d put it to good use in the morning.
So this was Sydney in the 21st century – a city I used to know like the back of my hand. But, just like my hand, it was now liver spotted with age and sadly, political correctness. Sydney – a city I’d lived, laughed and loved in. What was missing now?
The only thing that came to mind was ‘respect’ – respect for the individual, for a person’s innate good sense and the ability to know right from wrong. Back in the day, if a few thugs and morons fell foul of the law that’s where police, law courts and prison cells came into the picture. And nobody sympathised with them or cared about their sad lives; not the police or the magistrates – “Do the crime, do the time” was our mantra and you were expected to learn from the experience. Some did and some didn’t, but that’s the way it was.
Behind the slick facade of a large modern city, something of its heart and character had been stolen from the people … and visitors alike. Today, any wine bottle was assumed to be a weapon after 10pm, a beer glass likewise. Every person was assumed to be hankering to smash a glass and use it to slice ‘n’ dice and re-arrange a friend’s or stranger’s face. The Law now tells us when we are allowed to come out and play, what we could lubricate our social interactions with, and when we should head for home and get tucked up in bed.
We generally loved and thought kindly of our Grannies, but a Socialist Nanny State is a particularly soul-less entity – an increasingly pervasive intrusion on personal freedom AND personal responsibility.
Next morning I visited the recommended baccy shop, bought a few months supplies and gratefully hit the road, heading out of town. Road trips are gold for freeing one’s mind and encouraging figurative contemplation of one’s navel. State and City politicians as well as Police were crowing about the reduced crime statistics in Kings Cross but nobody had analysed the figures to determine whether the Lockout Laws “success” was due to improved public behaviour or simply the fact that dozens of businesses had closed and hundreds of young people had been thrown out of work, while fewer visitors and tourists bothered going there these days.
It’s a fair bet that the Casino is doing a thriving trade. Couple that with those money-hungry property developers eyeing off the spoils of a decaying precinct ten minutes walk from the City and I’d say everybody is happy (along with the managers of their Swiss bank accounts) while the only losers are the bankrupt business owners, their now-jobless employees, and the punters who are now universally assumed to be thugs and criminals in need of strict controls.
Goodbye Sydney – I’d rather remember when you and I were younger and we remembered what fun and freedom used to feel like.
Crack the window, flick on the air. No kiddies in the car … check. Take a pre-rolled ciggie from the cigarette case, light up and inhale. Aaaah, bliss. Joe Cocker rasps a 1970s rock song from the speakers and the turbo Subaru leaps forward. Who said our “senior years” don’t offer a unique and greatly appreciated freedom to be who we are, doing what we love to do?
When you’ve witnessed the loss of something young people don’t understand that they’ve lost and never known, it lends a special appreciation for a life well-lived and a determination to see it through with zest and enthusiasm.
“Er, sorry Officer – I wasn’t watching my speedo.”
Do the crime, pay the fine. Simple really.